Tag: QUILTBAG

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. THE ADVENTURES OF A STEAMPUNK BUSINESSWOMAN WHO AIN’T TAKING YOUR SHIT.
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

This review contains spoilers for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where its predecessor The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off: in space, with a new and unsure AI heading rapidly away from a crew devastated by the loss of her predecessor, housed in the highly illegal artificial human body that predecessor was about to inhabit, accompanied by tech genius and general Nice Person Pepper.

From there, it divides into two plotlines: one, set in the present day, follows the AI, now named Sidra, as she attempts to get used to a body she wasn’t designed to inhabit while trying to avoid detection in the slightly shady spaceport Port Coriol; the second, set some years in the past, follows a girl called Jane-23 as she discovers The Truth about the factory she’s spent her short life working in (its operators having hit on the Truth that it’s cheaper to clone humans than it is to build robots).

It took me an inordinate amount of time actually to get round to reading this (it was published in, whisper it low, 2016) given how much I enjoyed Small Angry Planet; but, in the end, it worked out rather well, as I ended up reading it while I was deep in the throes of NaNoWriMo last November. Like its predecessor, it’s a very comforting book, the kind you want to curl up in for ever and ever and never come out (except, possibly, for tea and/or chocolate). At its heart, it’s interested in emotional labour: the work that people do to find practical ways to help and accommodate each other. Problems are more likely to be solved discursively, through conversation, through empathy, than through shows of power or violence. And tolerance is a fundamental of Chambers’ worldbuilding, too: everything on Port Coriol is run with the social and physical needs of multiple alien races in mind. This is a galaxy full of imperfect people trying, in sometimes circuitous and often unglamorous ways, to rub along.

It’s easy to forget how radical such niceness, such a concerted effort at tolerance is; easy to dismiss such comfort reading as anodyne, rose-tinted escapism, as several reviewers have. Even optimism feels radical in a present that’s feeling ever more dystopian. But it’s also true that the optimism of A Closed and Common Orbit is a problem for the novel.

That’s primarily because, structurally, it’s a good deal more conventional than Small Angry Planet: whereas the latter was an episodic, leisurely, rather baggy trip through Chambers’ invented galaxy, A Closed and Common Orbit switches rather mechanically, chapter by chapter without fail, between its two storylines – which then dovetail as we reach the denouement of the tale and the past catches up with the present. And the discursiveness that makes A Closed and Common Orbit such a pleasure to sink into by its very nature can’t generate the narrative drive needed to make that tight structure really work. Instead, it just feels constricting and artificial – a barrier to talking about precisely what the novel’s most interested in.

Another, connected issue with that discursiveness, that built-in tolerance: the nastier elements of Chambers’ galaxy – the clone factories, the threat of oblivion that Sidra faces if the authorities discover she’s an AI in a human body – don’t really convince. At no point do we meet anyone who attempts to defend those factories, or the laws about AIs: they are, instead, vague and faceless threats. I never thought that Sidra was seriously in danger; I never quite bought into Jane-23’s story.

This is a problem firstly because, again, it takes tension out of a narrative structure that’s kind of designed to deliver tension, and secondly because these characters’ stories have analogues with real-world minorities. Sidra’s body dysphoria has parallels with the experience of some trans people; her difficulty in processing stimuli means she can also be read as neurodiverse; there’s a tragedy near the end of the novel, when a woman is legally wrenched away from what she considers to be her family, that recalls uncomfortably how Western countries, particularly America and Britain at the moment, treat refugees and asylum seekers. This is all important representation, of course! But the fact that we can read a world that wants to kill Sidra, and that can treat refugees in this way, as basically benign – which is how I read Chambers’ galaxy – is potentially troubling; at the very least it reinforces a privileged view of both the fictional and the real worlds as “basically OK for most people”, which is not even broadly true for this world.

A Closed and Common Orbit wasn’t a disappointing sequel, exactly. I was looking for the tolerance and the hope that featured in Small Angry Planet, and I found it. And I mean what I said about that optimism, and the sheer emotional work it takes Chambers’ characters to maintain it, being radical, and important: we need more of this kind of book, for the days when it feels like absolutely nothing will go right ever again. But, we also need other kinds of books, too, for the days when we feel braver: books that don’t flinch from the nastinesses of the world, the institutional discrimination and the low-level prejudice that make our world less than benign.

Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay

So, spoiler, it turns out I like steampunk, um, quite a lot.

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November’s probably my favourite Valente character, and she’d be reasonably straightforward to cosplay. You’d have to get the birthmark exactly right, though.
  2. Alexia Tarabotti – Soulless, Gail Carriger. Admittedly I have no idea what would distinguish this from a Generic Steampunk cosplay (maybe a sharpened parasol?), but Generic Steampunk is in itself awesome, so.
  3. Roland Deschain – the Dark Tower series, Stephen King. I mean, Roland would be problematic in that probably no-one would recognise him. And, you know, also the revolvers. But he’s such a charismatic character, and it would be…interesting to be him for a day.
  4. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. You would not believe how long I just spend looking at Discworld cosplays to determine exactly which female character would go on this list, but look at this dress. It is the most awesomest dress in the world. Also, attitude. (It’s all in how you hold the cigarette, I reckon.)
  5. Susan Sto Helit – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Turns out one Discworld character WAS NOT ENOUGH. Susan is intelligent and takes no shit from anyone and has cool hair.
  6. Death – The Sandman, Neil Gaiman. Can we all agree that Death is far, far more interesting than the Sandman? And also incredibly attractive? Yes? Thank you. And her costume looks easy to replicate, too.
  7. Kell – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Once again I am seduced by a swirly coat. One which is actually three coats in one. Why wouldn’t you?
  8. Door – Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. I don’t like the book, particularly, but I think the mismatched layers Door wears could be fun to try and recreate.
  9. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. YES LADY AVIATOR YES
  10. Steerpike – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Nobody does “tortured villainy” quite so well as Steerpike. Plus, he wears a swordcane.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

There are a few days left of 2017, but I think I’ll manage at most one more book in that time.

As always, these are books I personally read in 2017, because who’s organised enough to read stuff in the year it’s published?

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. I’ve read this approximately two-and-a-half times this year, probably more if you count all the times I’ve dipped in and out of it. I love it. I love its discursiveness, its artful artlessness, its gentle and undemanding hope, its ultra-readable engagement with literary theory. It’s become my go-to comfort read, and it’s not even SFF. (Sorry, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Palimpsest continues my quest to read all the Valente that exists in the world. It may actually be my favourite Valente (although that is an ever-changing thing). I read it slowly, on a long train journey, savouring Valente’s gorgeous prose and the lostness of her characters. I want to cosplay November someday. (I doubt anyone would get it, but there you go.)
  3. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. Yes, it’s a bit troubling that this is a collection of stories and poems about Japan by a non-Japanese author, but that’s an aggregate issue; individually, each piece in The Melancholy of Mechagirl is gemlike, heartbreaking, enchanting, utterly and sublimely lovely.
  4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. It took me ages to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I made it eventually: it’s  incredibly cleverly structured, with a chatty narrative voice that plays with reader expectation and generic conventions. It features three different POV characters, each telling a horrific tale of institutional emotional abuse, tragedy and oppression.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. This is a novel rooted in fairytale. And, like a lot of novels rooted in fairytale, it doesn’t quite manage to escape the sexist mores fairytales so often encode. It’s fucking gorgeous, though, and doing something very clever with irony and sincerity, its apparent naivete concealing and revealing the horror at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
  6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Another short story collection! These are hopeful, open-ended stories, full of queer characters. Like Valente’s work, they ask us to look at life again and re-experience it as magical.
  7. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I didn’t like this as much as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I missed the episodic, rambling structure of the first book. But I loved that A Closed and Common Orbit is just about people looking after each other. I think we all need more books like that.
  8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin. It’s so very rare that I read something that imagines a genuine alternative to capitalism; The Dispossessed does exactly that, building a world in which mutual aid, not competition, is the basis for all human relationships. Also, it has gay couples. In 1974. That’s awesome.
  9. Viriconium – M. John Harrison. This volume collects Harrison’s novels and stories of Viriconium, a city at the end of time that’s haunted by a long-distant past that it can never truly access. It’s a Gothic riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a lot of other things. It’s hypnotic, unsettling, shifting: a science fictional Gormenghast.
  10. Nova – Samuel Delany. Nova surprised me immensely: you expect certain things from SF published in 1969, and Delany’s novel is none of them. It’s incredibly colourful, interested in the sensual rather than the rational; it plays interesting textual games.

Review: Brida

I’ve procrastinated starting this review for about an hour now, because, honestly, even just thinking about Brida makes my eyes want to bleed.

I have a terrible habit of reading an author’s worst work first and then not going back, because if you can’t hook me from the first book why should I bother with the second?

Probably most of us have heard about the supposedly life-changing genius of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. My library didn’t have The Alchemist in when I went to look; it only had Brida.

And so, here we are.

I submit that your reaction to Brida‘s foreword (or, as Coelho calls it, “Warning”) is probably an excellent barometer of your response to the book as a whole:

the few rituals described in Brida are the same as those practised over the centuries by the Tradition of the Moon…Practising such rituals without guidance is dangerous, inadvisable, unnecessary and can greatly hinder the Spiritual Search.

Passing over that grammatically hideous second sentence and the rather precious capitalisation, this “Warning” frames Brida as not really a novel but a kind of parable, a metaphor containing essential truth. The register of the “Warning” – and thus of the book as a whole – is naivete: “this is how the world is; the lessons you’ll learn in here are true”.

This isn’t really my thing, cynical British SFF reader that I am; but it can be used to interesting effect, as Ben Okri does in his Starbook, which undermines its apparently utopian fairytale charm with complex shades of irony, with rich, dark imagery.

Of course, Coelho is doing no such thing. Brida‘s naivete translates not into a sense that we’re learning something deep and important and true, but simply into a blithe unawareness of how narratives work. It forgets the first thing you learn as a student of literature: that words are not clear windows onto some objective truth, but that they’re always compromised, always subjective, always situational.

Technically, I suppose, it’s a kind of Bildungsroman. Brida is a young woman searching for meaning and purpose in her life. She goes to two teachers (quoting from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, because I can’t actually bring myself to put this into my own words):

a hermit mage who teaches her to overcome fear and a witch who teaches her how to dance to the hidden music of the world.

But they don’t teach her to question; and surely that’s odd? Surely if you’re learning about magic as a hidden truth in the world (which, remember, Coelho is framing as true) you learn to question everything, to weigh evidence, to work out where the truth lies? That’s how SFF readers read, which is perhaps why I personally found Brida so jarring.

Because the mundanity of this magic! Much of the book revolves around Brida working out who her Soulmate (yes, capital S, kill me now) is. See, Coelho trots out the old chestnut that we are all one half of a soul and we have to find the other half of our soul and they are our Soulmate who we will love for all time. On the face of it this is vaguely romantic; if you think about it for more than three seconds it’s deeply fucking depressing – especially since, in Coelho’s version, the two halves of the soul are specifically male and female. Where are the gay people in this narrative? Where are the aromantic people? This explanation of the universe only sounds right because our culture has a deep, patriarchal investment in the concept of heterosexual romantic love – and a certain kind of romantic love at that – as the highest possible form of human emotion. Far from being an ultimate truth of the universe, it’s a lazy, unexamined cliché steeped in a specific cultural moment.

If this is magic, I want no part in it.

I’m not going to read The Alchemist.

Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.